Last week, a speeding bus skidded off a road and fell into a canal, snuffing out 21 lives and leaving many more others traumatized, perhaps for life. That accident occurred because (1) drives of private buses in Kolkata get paid on a commission basis and hence drive rashly to pick up more passengers and increase their earnings and (2) the driver wasn't trained enough to drive a bus. These are two issues that have been discussed at numerous forums, especially after major road accidents, and the state authorities have promised action many a time. But nothing has changed and buses continue to be driven brashly and rashly by ill-trained drivers who think nothing of mercilessly mowing down people. Blood continues to be spilt on our roads and what's appalling and totally unacceptable is the nonchalance of our elected representatives and officials of the transport and related departments who ought to take steps to prevent recurrence of such accidents. Strangely, and this can happen only in Kolkata, everyone seems to accept accidents as inevitable; after all, nothing can change a person's destiny. Such fatalistic acceptance of fate, without clamouring for and forcing the authorities to take corrective steps does Kolkata no good.
Our placidity (perhaps 'flaccidity' fits in better?) is also the reason why our transport minister gets away with making outrageous statements. After this accident, Subhas Chakraborty sided with Kolkata's rash and killer bus drivers, defending them and saying that no driver would want to injure or kill people. He also said that the driver of the bus that plunged into the canal wasn't driving rashly, thus contradicting accounts of eyewitnesses and the passengers of the ill-fated bus. This minister, by making such statements, displayed his utter disregard and even contempt for the feelings and sentiments of the people of this city and the bereaved families. Had a minister in any other state made such a patently absurd, irresponsible and obnoxious statement, a public outcry would have forced him to retract and, maybe, even resign. Imagine a minister in Delhi batting for drivers of 'Blueline' buses after a major accident resulting in 21 deaths! That minister's political career would have been over immediately. However, in Bengal, the citizenry, beaten into meek submission by decades of brutal Marxist rule, are too docile to protest or demand an apology from Chakraborty. Even the local media, alas, hasn't mustered the courage to hold the minister responsible for his statements and condemned him, as he deserves to be condemned, for defending the indefensible and for being so insensitive.
Change The System
Kolkata is, perhaps, the only city where bus drivers are paid a commission, that too a meager one, rather than fixed salaries. A driver gets about ten to twelve percent of the total ticket collections. This amounts to about Rs 4000 a month. Naturally, a driver--like all humans--would want to maximize his earnings and the only way to do that is to pick up more passengers. Since most bus routes in Kolkata overlap each other, there are many buses traveling between Point A and Point B within a few seconds to a couple of minutes of each other. Thus, there is intense competition among buses to take in as many passengers and this leads to racing and rash driving.
There have been persistent demands to do away with this system of commission
and pay the drivers a fixed salary. But owners of buses argue that if paid a
fixed salary, the drivers would laze around at the bus terminals and would not
be bothered to pick up passengers, quite like government buses that have pushed
the state transport corporations into the red. There's merit in this argument,
since most drivers are Bengalis and are, thus, a lazy lot by nature. And any
attempts to discipline them or penalize them by the owners of the buses they
drive would fail because they're organized into strong unions. After every major
road accident involving a bus, the transport department convenes a meeting with
bus drivers and owners where these arguments are lobbed back and forth. The
meeting ends inconclusively and things continue in the same manner till the next
bloodspill on the roads. Does this, then, mean there's no way out?
One, there are far too many buses on Kolkata's roads. And this is the reason behind the mad scramble to get as big a slice of the fixed pie as a bus can. The way out, then, is to restrict the number of buses plying on a route and also to rationalize the routes. At present, the routes defy all logic with most of them overlapping and concentrating in the central parts of the city. The extra buses can be made to ply on routes that don't have enough buses, but a good number of passengers--Salt Lake, Rajarhat and many areas in the districts neighbouring Kolkata, for instance. There is also an urgent need to restrict the number of taxis and autorickshaws plying in the city. Nearly half the 60,000-odd autos in Kolkata ply illegally without any permits and are driven by men with scant knowledge or understanding of traffic rules and norms. These autos are quite often the cause of road accidents.
The traffic police need to crack down on all vehicles that violate traffic rules. The attitude needs to be 'zero tolerance' towards violations of rules. Fines and penalties need to be increased manifold so as to serve as a strong deterrent for errant drivers. Also, the law needs to be changed to send rash drivers who kill people to prison for a few years at least. Records and licensing procedures at the transport offices need to be computerized and streamlined to ensure that drivers whose licences are impounded or suspended don't get behind the wheels as easily as they do now. Everyone ought to be made accountable for their actions--the guard rail which could have prevented the bus from plunging into the canal the other day was removed while dredging the canal a few months ago, but never re-installed; the officials responsible for this lapse need to be penalized very strongly, perhaps even dismissed from service. Pavements ought to be cleared of vendors and made free for pedestrians and after that, jaywalkers should be penalized stiffly. A strong campaign needs to be launched to educate motorists and pedestrians about traffic rules.
The traffic police need to be re-trained for better traffic management, this
wing needs to be strengthened with more personnel and corruption in the traffic
police ought to be dealt with a heavy hand. A traffic master plan for the city
ought to be drawn up and adequate measures taken keeping in mind the traffic
conditions that'll prevail fifty years from now. These are some of the most
important measures that need to be taken urgently. But will the authorities
carry out even one of these most basic of tasks? Chances of that happening are
dim, given our venal politicians, slothful bureaucrats, the vested interests
like the drivers' unions and transporters' federations who would stiffly resist
all attempts at change and the chalta-hai attitude of Kolkata's citizenry who
have learnt to take fatal accidents in their stride. Status quo, thus.
This is a supposed to be a city with a heart; a city that has always stood by the oppressed and protested oppression, be it in Palestine or in Iraq. This is supposed to be an egalitarian city that provides a platform, without any prejudice, to anyone and everyone to voice their opinions. This has been Kolkata's legacy. Not any longer; this rich and glorious slice of Kolkata's heritage has been besmirched by the Marxists who have shut out Tibetan protestors. The Kolkata police had accorded 600-odd Tibetans who trickled in to the city over the past few days from Orissa, Darjeeling and Sikkim to hold a series of protests over three days against Chinese repression in Tibet. But suddenly and inexplicable, the permission was withdrawn on Wednesday night. The police now say they received orders from the home department to throttle the protests--silent marches through major thoroughfares, a prayer meet at the foot of Mahatma Gandhi's statue to pray for those killed in the recent turmoil in Tibet and other peaceful and innocuous programmes.
Kolkata Police chief even told reporters that since Tibetans were not supposed to conduct any "political activity" in India, the police was withdrawing permission to them to hold these events. This comes soon after Chinese consul-general, Mao Siwei, met Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on Wednesday afternoon. It doesn't need much intelligence or imagination to figure out what must have transpired at the meeting--Siwei would have asked Bhattacharjee to stop the planned protests by the Tibetans and Bhattacharjee, ever eager to please his Chinese masters, asked the police to do the needful.
It is shameful and condemnable that the Chinese can dictate terms to Bengal; it is distressing that our rulers are willing to subvert democracy and freedom to please the Chinese. And, by the way, how dare the Chinese ask us to undermine our democracy just to suit them? And anyway, there are many Indians in organizations like 'Friends of Tibet' that were planning to participate in these protests. Now, what right does the Kolkata Police and the Marxist government here have in stopping Indians from protesting Chinese oppression in Tibet? More so when protests by Marxist footsoldiers against 'American imperialism' are regularly held with such banal inanity in Kolkata?
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